In the Dunmore Pineapple near Airth we have what is reckoned to be the most bizarre building in Scotland. In the grounds there is something just as bizarre as the construction, there is the confusing signpost below. The three indicating arms are clear to read, they definitely point somewhere, but they all indicate the same thing, ‘Path’. They actually do point to paths, but there is no indication as to the condition of the path or where it may lead. All there is is the invitation to follow a ‘path’.
The church, in its major denominations takes the same stance, or rather multiplicity of stances. This is nowhere more clearly exemplified than in the Church of Scotland. At the last General Assembly it was decided in the Bogle Compromise that the church would hold to its traditional teaching with regard to sexual mores, fidelity within marriage and chastity outwith marriage. At the same time the Assembly also decided that when it came to choosing a minister a congregation could, if it so chose, call an openly homosexual minister. One finger pointing to one path, the other finger pointing to a completely different path.
The motion which led to this contradictory set of indicators was made by an ex-Moderator of the General Assembly, normally a fairly sensible fellow, who strove to keep the denomination together in the face of relentless pro-homosexual campaigning. Unfortunately he succeeded only in prolonging the agony of decision making whilst meanwhile sending out yet another confusing message to the nation. What the Assembly decided was, ‘This is what the church believes, for the present, but members and congregations can believe and do whatever they want.’
In the Church of England we find George Carey, onetime archbishop of Canterbury, warning that the CofE is ‘on the brink of extinction’, that within a generation it will have disappeared. Lord Carey puts this down to the failure of the church to attract young worshippers.
Whilst there is some truth in his analysis there is also danger. When the church focuses on attracting any particular group then it focuses on what it thinks will attract that group. With young people this is assumed to be new forms of music, worship, liturgy, a new ‘inclusive’ message more attuned to young ears. When it attempts this the church usually ends up looking like the aged uncle at a party trying to dance to show how ‘with it’ he is. The only person he is fooling is himself.
When we look at those churches which are strong and growing we are liable to find a variety of styles of worship and music, within a spread of denominations and independents, and a mixture of leadership styles. What they do tend to have in common is a clear gospel message. Those congregations which are growing and have a high proportion of young people also tend to be those which have clear teaching from Scripture.
Praise bands and ‘worship leaders’, preachers in casual clothes using everyday language can all be useful in getting the message across, but the church is sorely mistaken when, consciously or unconsciously, it accepts McLuhan’s dictum that ‘The medium is the message’. For the church the gospel must always be the message and that message must be pronounced with clarity in a way people can understand.
Young people today tend to be serious about faith and are not taken in by superficial rebranding. What they actually look for is a message they can engage with, that they can accept or reject but something which has to be taken seriously. They are not looking for a church which says, ‘Believe what you want, you’ll find something here that you will like. However, don’t worry, if you don’t like it we will change the message’. That way we enter Ezekiel 33 territory.